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Solved after 33 years? Case of first missing boy shown on milk carton

Man confesses to killing of six-year-old whose disappearance prompted long-running campaign

Police in New York said yesterday they had a suspect in custody in the landmark case of six-year-old Etan Patz, who vanished while walking to his school bus in Manhattan 33 years ago.

The arrest of a man, identified as Pedro Hernandez of New Jersey, may bring resolution to one of the most famous unsolved murder mysteries in the city's history. The boy's disappearance led to one of the first missing persons campaigns that involved printing his photograph on milk cartons.

The announcement drew scores of media vehicles and reporters to the SoHo block where the boy disappeared in 1979 and where his parents still live. "An individual now in custody has made statements to NYPD detectives implicating himself in the disappearance and death of Etan Patz," said the city's police commissioner, Raymond Kelly.

Years after a police investigation went dry, Etan was formally declared dead in 2001. But two years ago, prosecutors re-opened the case. Last month, detectives returned to the block where he vanished and tore up the basement of a building where, in 1979, a handyman had a workshop and occasionally gave Etan pocket money for helping out. They acted after cadaver-sniffing dogs sensed something there.

In a video-taped confession, Hernandez reportedly told police on Wednesday that, after grabbing the boy on the street – it was the first day that Etan's family had allowed him to walk unaccompanied to the bus stop – he strangled him and then deposited him somewhere in New York inside a bag and a box. He later returned to retrieve the box from where he had left it, but it had disappeared.

It may be some time before detectives can determine whether the confession by Hernandez holds water. Suspicions had previously centred on Jose Antonio Ramos, a friend of the Patz family's babysitter, who was later convicted of child molestation for which he remains behind bars.

Ramos was targeted in a civil suit by the Patz family in 2004 for the child's death, but has always maintained his innocence.

Nobody who lived in New York at the time of the crime will have forgotten it. In addition to the milk cartons, flyers were posted all over the city bearing Etan's picture. His disappearance also ignited a nationwide awareness campaign for crimes involving the disappearance of young children. After the return of investigators to the neighbourhood in April, members the Patz family asked for privacy and none would answer their door last night.

However, neighbours expressed hope that this would not prove to be another dead-end turn in the case. "I just hope they get some resolution after all these years. It's just an horrific thing," said Carla Seal-Wanner, 58, who moved to SoHo in the early 1980s.

Timeline: Manhattan mystery

25 May 1979 Etan's parents allow the six-year-old to walk to his school bus stop alone for the first time. They never see him again.

1980s He becomes the first missing child featured on milk cartons.

1982 Detectives find a suspect, Jose Antonio Ramos, but he is not charged. The Patz family launches a civil suit against him for the crime after Etan is declared dead in 2001.

2012 Having re-opened the case in 2010, police search a basement near the Patz's New York home for human remains. A month later, Pedro Hernandez reportedly confesses to having killed Etan.